Fake news on social media

The rise of citizen journalism has brought about a wave of fake news sites. Parody accounts have arrived that mimic world events and poke fun at media headlines, or the lack of them.

In the recent United States presidential election, Facebook saw an unprecedented amount of fake news stories being circulated. Many of these stories were widely believed to be real news, which people think influenced the vote.

And, here lies the issue. People need reliable sources to make informed decisions. Votes should be made from choices based on factual information and personal opinion.

Journalists and PR practitioners know that sources need to be checked and referenced against other independent sources to ascertain their truth.

This is a global PR issue. It’s about communication. The spreading of incorrect information or news can be a dangerous tool that is easily abused to manipulate people’s thoughts and feelings.

For years journalists have had to follow a strict publication code to maintain integrity. But, with the newspapers in decline, and citizen journalism on the up thanks to social media, the discipline and rigour of journalism often does not extend to these platforms.

The fake news stories that were released during the election are thought to have swayed the US presidential vote. If this is true, this alters the landscape and make an unfair election. People are going to feel lied to and mislead which in turn will cause its own problems.

This is not the only occasion bogus news has caused issues. Chancellor Merkel has recently shared her frustrations with the press about false refugee stories that have caused her party to lose ground to her main rivals (Alternative for Germany – the populist right-wing party).

Her anger lies in the manipulation of public opinion by the internet. Fake news, bots and trolls are all designed to make the most of the algorithms that Google and Facebook use to populate their sites with content. By sharing these falsities on popular sites, people’s opinions can be changed or reinforced.

Germany’s election is next year and campaigns are in full swing. No wonder Merkel is worried after seeing what happened in America, this could have a serious effect on her party’s success.

Merkel is planning on creating a law to make the deliberate dissemination of fake news illegal. But, this raises other issues and questions.

  • How do you police such a law?
  • Is this censorship of free speech?
  • Should people really be taking Facebook/social media as a reliable news source?
  • How will someone knows if it’s real news or not?
  • Could social media censorship be abused and used in a similar way to false news stories to manipulate public opinion?
  • If Merkel does enforce this law in Germany, will the rest of the world follow suit?

Surely the answer is that we need to educate people to be more critical. Research and looking at a broad range of independent, regulated and global sources should be encouraged.

The internet allows access (let’s not mention North Korea and China!) to a whole range of global newspapers which give a variety of reporting styles and political stances. There are many resources available run by regulated journalists, academics and institutions where the public can get their news from.

I think social media censorship, and that’s essentially what this law would be, could be the start of yet more social monitoring in our ‘big brother’ society. It could be a pre-curser to bringing in other rules and regulations that restrict what people can say. I also don’t think it’s right to share false news though, so I find it hard to see how a balance could be struck.

There are lots of good articles discussing fake news at the moment, here are a few of them:

  • The Guardian – What is fake news?
  • Buzzfeed – This Analysis Shows How Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News On Facebook
  • BBC – Fake news: Facebook rolls out new tools to tackle false stories

What do you think? Should social media be policed or should people be more critical when they are reading  content online? I’d love to hear your thoughts, please share them in the comments section.

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